My debut novel, The Kindness is now available:
'When you know your time is short, anything starts to feel like everything…'
Daisy Lowry is missing a dad…Gabriel Lowry is a dying illusionist seeking a daughter…as both look for a reunion, they tumble into new and magical experiences, Gabriel having it all on to perform the greatest trick of this life – slipping the noose a very bitter, overworked Death has for him…whilst Daisy finds solace in a mysterious group of strong, independent women…
Book #1 in The Keepers of the Song series, with book #2 due for release early 2023.
Start reading the first chapter below...
Chapter 1 – Night-Night Snuggly-Bear
A sturdy desk. Of a dark wood the man could no longer remember the name for. The room was chilly. Shuffling toward a simple chair in front of the desk he tugged his fleece around him. Grey plastic, tubular metal legs. Behind the desk sat another man, with thinning black hair, riddled with grey. A patch at the crown visible as he bent over a ledger on the desk. He was writing with care, periodically glancing from the ledger to a computer monitor to his right and back again. He had expected the man behind the desk to look up, say something. He sat down on the plastic chair, gave a little cough.
The only response was the sound of a quality nib moving neatly across quality paper.
“I don’t remember how I got here? In fact, where is here?”
The man behind the desk spoke without looking up.
“Wait a moment, can you not see I’m busy?”
“Sorry. Should I stay?”
The man behind the desk gave no reply. The walls of the room – moody, drab wood-panelling – braced themselves against the scratching of nib on paper. Apart from the desk, three metal filing cabinets and a coat-stand, the room was featureless.
“Or, should I go now?”
“Oh, for fu-
The man jerked his head up. He appeared middle-aged, with sallow skin, a lipless, downturned slit of a mouth and hard, black eyes.
A face that had stopped trying.
“You’re here now,” the man said, not bothering to disguise a sigh, “so you may as well stay.”
With that he returned to the ledger. The man newly arrived wanted to make more words, but the ones in his head moments before, fled. Like sheep breaking loose whilst a Border Collie licks at its bits. He shifted in the uncomfortable plastic chair. It was difficult not to slide. When the man behind the desk had spoken, the temperature in the room had dropped even colder. Some minutes later, the world’s noisiest nib on the world’s noisiest paper stopped, as the man behind the desk looked up once more, studying the man in the chair closely.
“Are you, Bland?”
The man behind the desk capped the pen. Setting it down, he adjusted its position on the desk until he was satisfied, inhaling slowly, exhaling precisely.
“Are you, Bland?”
“Err…I’m not sure? No one’s told me I am.”
“Let’s try this one last time shall we. Are you, this man here before me, one Mr. David Gregory Bland, late of the parish of Lower Munton?”
“Oh, I see, yes. I mean I think so. I’ve been forgetting things. Am I late?”
“David – can I call you David – there’s something I have to tell you…”
At this point the man behind the desk leaned forward and peered at David, tipping his head to one side as he took in his ironed jeans and tidy hair. It happened slowly, but he tried out a smile. He was determined to convince himself that the mandatory Customer Care course hadn’t been an utter waste of time. It was a smile that did nothing to make his gaze any warmer.
“It’s fortunate you’re sitting down, for I feel this may come as something of a shock –
David interrupted him, words spurting.
“Oh god. It’s dementia, isn’t it?”
“No, no, goodness no,” said the man. He attempted a second smile, which fell no less short than the first.
“I have very good news, it’s definitely not dementia.”
David visibly relaxed, settling his hands one over the other in his lap. A fastidious movement, like laying a tablecloth.
“Your mind is in great working order, David. Not a whiff of dementia. There is, however, something else…you’re, well, no point sugaring this particular pill I suppose. You’re dead, David.”
David looked at his hands, turning his palms upwards. Then he stared at his feet, moving them apart. Then together. He looked slowly around the room. There was a small window he hadn’t noticed, high up behind the desk. A memory of pale blue sky beyond.
“I’m not dead! I certainly don’t feel dead.”
“A good many don’t at this point. Trust me though David, you are very much, brown bread, as they say. You wouldn’t be here with me if you weren’t. That would be an impossibility.”
“Well, with the greatest of respect,” snapped David, “I’m breathing.”
He placed his hand on the area where he imagined his heart to be, as the man behind the desk watched his expression change.
“With the greatest of respect…you’ll notice that your heart has stopped. You have no use for it now.”
David’s arm sagged into his lap before his face collapsed slowly into a look of perfect incomprehension.
At this, the man behind the desk stared, in the manner of a teacher staring at a child asking a question they consider ridiculous, before smoothing his composure.
“No, I’m definitely not God – and she’d be somewhat aggrieved if I claimed to be. My name is Mr. Bliss.”
He waited for David to say more. His mouth was open as he traced a hand around his heart again. Mr. Bliss cleared his throat and went on.
“I go by many other names. Thanatos, the way of all flesh, Azrael, Mort. The Welsh refer to me as yr Angau. To some, I am King Yama. A few still favour The Pale Rider. I could go on, innumerable colloquialisms. I am nothing if not adaptable. In the UK, owing to its obstinate patriarchy, I adopt the form of a man mostly, such as you see today,” Mr. Bliss paused, waving a hand toward himself.
“In more progressive places I may take the form of a woman, should the fancy take me. I mostly appear like this though. Says more about me I suppose. Anyway, physical appearance aside, most probably you’ll recognise me as The Grim Reaper.”
Mr. Bliss waited for David to respond. Getting nothing, he went on.
“I can fetch the scythe if it helps? Simply put, if we abandon the highfalutin titles and clumsy euphemisms – I am Death.”
David swallowed hard at the last word. His mouth was dry and he felt teary and nauseous. He had no memory of an accident. In fact, the more he tried to recall anything of events that led to him sitting on this hard chair, in this chilly room, the more nothing came.
“I have work tomorrow,” said David, rather indignantly Mr. Bliss felt. “Liz will be expecting me for tea. It’s Tuesday, fish day and –
David broke off as the tears brimming his eyes burst free, meandering down his cheeks.
“And what about Gregory and Savannah? This is preposterous! They have a dad. They need their dad.”
“Liz chose it. We’d been on holiday…”
Mr. Bliss gave David some time to babble like a burst pipe, concentrating on digging a paperclip under a finger nail. He wiggled out some dirt and flicked it onto the floor. A greater part of his role was allowing the people whose path he crossed – cut short – to talk. To attempt to make sense of it. Being able to take whatever form he deemed appropriate, he had felt David needed something safe and reliable. The tunnel of light was still an option of course, as was an angelic choir. Mr. Bliss needed no more than the idea to form in his mind, in order for it to prevail.
Some of the people he collected wept. Some got angry and a considerable proportion flat-out denied what was happening. And the fear – so much needless fear. If only he was spoken of more readily, Mr. Bliss thought. People educated from school age. Perhaps then, fully understanding and accepting that they would one day die, people would live far fuller lives. Spend less time watching celebrity television or pawing at mobile phones. Be less scared of loving.
Watching David quietly sobbing, he wasn’t sure which direction he might go. He had sufficient information about David to understand he was not a man prone to violence, favouring a passive-aggressive capitulation. He was taken aback, when David bolted from the chair and made for the door. Grabbing at the brass knob he turned it hurriedly left, then right, then pulled at it, pushed at the door, but it didn’t open.
“It’s not always a real door,” said Mr. Bliss. He stopped – David wasn’t ready to hear it. He kicked the door a couple of times, then crumpled, sliding down the door to a sitting position. It was like watching magnolia paint run.
“You don’t get to go back,” said Mr. Bliss, his tone softer. “At least not right away. Perhaps you could sit back down, allow me to take you through the necessary details?”
David stared at him weighing up his options. Realising quickly that he hadn’t any, he trudged back to the chair. He flopped down head bowed, fingers twisting in and out of one another.
Mr. Bliss pushed a box of tissues toward the edge of the desk.
“Aloe Vera, apparently…”
David took a tissue and blew his nose loudly. Then again.
“I can’t believe this is happening…”
“Few do. Now, where were we? Sooooo, I am Death. Something of a misnomer really. To be exact, I am what’s known as a psychopomp, from the Greek – a guide for souls. I’m here to collect you. I cannot take your life. Events have done that, events entirely beyond my remit. Well, usually...”
David glanced at Mr. Bliss. There was so much he wanted to say, yet something in that man’s brisk demeanour robbed him of his words. A nod was the best he could muster.
“Right, if you don’t mind, we’ll crack on. I have an extremely long day, and a lot of different places to be.”
Gracie Coates had lived a life of steadfast impatience and her death would be no different. She had hurried from daughter to mother, to grandmother, to great grandmother, barely stopping to draw breath. Friends and family knew her to be snappy when having to wait. For anything. Get her stuck in a queue and she was like an active shooter, spraying barbed irritation in all directions. Even when she prayed it was a rapid petition, her Alabama drawl tumbling words like river stones morning and evening, as she knelt over her iron-framed bed, head tipped toward a patchwork quilt smelling of juniper wash liquid.
Gracie had insisted on dying at home. Had barked about it from the second a drained consultant had yawned her way through an explanation of cirrhosis, what he called her “end-stage liver disease”. Gracie didn’t know her liver personally, had not bothered to become acquainted. She had, however, forced it into working long days, seven days a week, frequently refusing requests for vacation time. Granted, she permitted the occasional lunch break, allowed it to relax for a clutch of hours at a time, now and then, for a day. During festivities, such as Christmas, she expected it to work overtime without complaint.
Now, after sixty-three years, her liver had made a stand, refusing to get up and get busy. Not only that, it had now stopped speaking to her pancreas. After a furious quarrel over working conditions, neither was willing to back down, having reached what lawyers delight in invoicing as irretrievable breakdown.
Dying at home had been something that in the end, no one besides Gracie supported. She felt a monstrous rage toward her family, watching them shift loyalty one by one, from her clearly expressed wishes, to whispering complicitly in corridors with a cast of worn-out consultants.
It was late one night, after the last of her family had left, having reluctantly dismantled their prayer circle around her bed, that Gracie noticed something in the corner of the room. At least she had a room to herself. Her anger toward her family had lost much of its sting and she’d even offered a quickfire apology – one she refused to repeat it for those who hadn’t been listening. Nor for the ones who had failed to hear it over the sounds of the equipment metering out her final hours, the banging and scraping of panic in the corridors; the constant weeping of sirens. As for the ones that hadn’t visited her, particularly the pastor, as far as she was concerned, they could very merrily go fuck themselves.
She noticed that the sounds of the room were quieter than usual. They reminded her of home. A gentle melody of appliances humming, wheezing and clicking; grouping close in a steady rhythm. She propped herself up on a bank of lumpy pillows, nestling into them as best as they would allow. She took a deep gulp from a bottle of Bourbon she’d bullied one of her grandsons into bringing, stowing it back inside the pillows. She was drawn to the corner of her room, to a hovering orb of shimmering white light. She thought of the moon, the way it can nudge a milky glow through a gapped curtain or a slatted blind. A bright splash of light, yet partial and incomplete.
Seeing the intensity of the light deepen, Gracie felt no fear. She was not a woman easily intimidated. What she did feel, was a growing fascination as the glow expanded, inking in the shadows before shaping itself into an open archway. Gracie clapped her hands together – it looked just like the supermarket Christmas Grotto her mother took her to as a child! That low, magical doorway fringed with twinkling white lights.
Her mother would hold her hand until it was her turn, then encourage her through the illuminated arch into a short tunnel decorated to look like snow. Her mother would always be waiting at the other end, smiling and smelling of cigarette smoke. Gracie had always loved snaking along the snowy passage before rounding the corner to see a fat, Caucasian Father Christmas jammed into a hopelessly small room, cluttered with gift-wrapped boxes ceiling high. Gracie always imagined him arriving first, the remainder of the grotto built around him. By elves.
She wondered if her mother might appear in the corner of the hospital room; looked forward to seeing her again. People at her church dismissed such things, but Gracie was a believer. Although she told no one, she had never stopped missing her mother.
The shining light retreated into the archway, as though an unseen hand had adjusted a dimmer switch. As the light faded, instead of her mother, an angel was revealed. A lithe angel, wings tucked behind his back, wearing little more than gold lamé jockey shorts. Very tight shorts. Gracie reached for her glasses, then strained from her bed. She thought the man beautiful, his dark skin rippled with muscles, all seven-foot-whatever of him.
His voice was assured, filling the room with a rich bass tone, as blue ambulance light outside seemed to underline his words.
“Yes, I’m Gracie.”
She replied almost in a whisper, unable to take her eyes off the man stood before her.
“I am Death.”
His tone rattled a stack of plastic drinking cups on her bedside table, caused her drip to swing like a pendulum.
“Well now,” said Gracie cheerfully. “You took your sweet fucking time!”
Chapter 1 continues in separate post...